The first date is supposed to be about love languages. At the start of the second episode of the sixteenth season of The Bachelorette, nine men follow a trail of heart stickers to some unused alcove of the Palm Springs La Quinta resort where 39-year-old Clare Crawley, their leading lady (for the time being), gazes down at them from a makeshift castle tower á la Romeo and Juliet. The host, Chris Harrison, bids each man to “speak to Clare’s heart” as a test of their competency in the first language of love: words of affirmation.
Given that they’ve only just met the woman, on a reality TV show no less, there’s not much to affirm. Some of the men interpret the task as a college interview or perhaps a networking event and launch into an elevator pitch about their own strengths. Army veteran Ben gives a long-winded spiel on his propensity to “choose the harder path over the easier one” which he prefaces, bizarrely, with “from my heart to yours, Clare.” The next suitor gestures towards a painful past, enigmatically referencing the many layers that he “just can’t wait to peel back” with Clare (“be that onion!” she replies encouragingly). Others boldly try their hand at gassing up a woman they just met, their limited vocabulary producing awkward statements like “when I saw your energy and your spirit…” Riley gets points for dramatic flair, composing a couplet about the Bachelorette complete with a kiss on the hand. Front-runner Dale rounds off the challenge with a rambling speech concluding with the utterly meaningless statement, “I am who I am, and I’m here,” which he delivers with a smug grin as if it matched the Shakespearian quality their setting evokes.
A cut back to the tower shows our Bachelorette utterly giddy, as if she can’t quite believe her luck. The tragicomedy reaches its apex when Clare tears up, remarking, “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard such kind things from men.”
Before the Bachelor franchise, there was Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, a reality TV-special that sought to combine what FOX exec Mike Darnell identified as the two “huge American dreams:” “winning money” and “getting married.” Its structure mimicked that of a beauty pageant, pitting 50 women against one another in swimsuit and question-and-answer competitions for the prize of marriage to a wealthy man, whom they only saw in silhouette.
Investigations shortly after Multi-Millionaire aired revealed that the lead, Rick Rockwell, was a domestic abuser with a restraining order filed against him by a previous girlfriend. It was unlikely that he was really a multi-millionaire, or even a millionaire, journalists speculated, citing his ordinary-sized house with a discarded toilet in the backyard. While modern-day dating shows have evolved in the decades since, this program provided the template for the disturbing combination that still defines its successors: a doggedly romantic façade concealing an utterly empty interior.
Looking at the photo of Rockwell and his chosen bride (who sought an annulment shortly after the honeymoon), his rictus grin and manic gaze, I am struck by what feels like the most disturbing and bizarre feature of the reality dating show premise—how uncritically it selects someone to hold up as worthy of unquestioning, idealistic love.
Producer Mike Fleiss laid low for two years after the Multi-Millionaire fiasco before pitching the concept for a new show in which one guy dates 25 women and proposes to one. The Bachelor premiered on ABC in 2002, to widespread acclaim. The show codifies the conventions of heterosexual courtship with its own lexicon: a relationship progresses from group dates to one-on-ones, then meeting the family (“Hometowns”) and “Overnights,” complete with time alone in the “Fantasy Suite,” all designed to culminate in a proposal. Each episode, the women vie for a rose, signaling the Bachelor’s decision to keep them around for another week.
These reality dating shows trade less in romance than in female vulnerability. Host Chris Harrison’s signature superlative—“most dramatic season ever!”—is earned by heavily anticipated “catfights,” outbursts, and zoomed-in, heavily-mic’d footage of contestants in tears. The supervising producer of The Bachelor reportedly incentivized producers with $100 rewards for catching women crying or puking on camera. Fleiss is on record for telling Entertainment Weekly: “It’s a lot of fun to watch girls crying. Never underestimate the value of that.”
In 2019, the Bachelor Nation YouTube account published a video under the title “Most EPIC Bachelor Breakups & Breakdowns EVER!” It’s four and a half minutes long, and it’s mostly clips of women crying. Some of them sob so hard they can barely breathe. One lies with her head on the tiled floor, wheezing. She says she’s having a panic attack. Often the women are trying to get out of the shot, covering their faces with their hands and hunching down. But the camera always follows.
The censor box, also known as the “Black Box of Shame,” appears fairly frequently on Clare’s season of The Bachelorette—but not in the context you might expect. Three of the first five group dates revolve around a variation on a traditional sport in which the men are instructed to compete in a state of partial, occasionally near total, undress. The most daring producer brainchild comes in the second episode, in the form of the novel “strip dodgeball.” The losing team of men progressively strips off their shirts and shorts before finally doffing their jockstraps in a grand romantic gesture and heading back to the resort in nothing but their sneakers. The Black Box of Shame does overtime, only to be put to work again a few weeks later for “splash ball” (Bachelor-speak for water polo) in too-small Speedos, followed by a shirtless wrestling match next episode in which the men oil up to fight over the jubilant Bachelorette. “This is a girl’s dream, honestly,” she quips.
Chris Harrison introduced the pilot episode of the gender-swapped version of The Bachelor as “the first time in TV history” that “a woman has all the power.” Indeed, The Bachelorette often gives the impression of an alternate universe in which women rule. Or rather, one woman rules. The men by and large regard their leading lady with a sycophantic devotion, pursuing her affections single-mindedly and without demur since before even meeting her. Group dates with the Bachelorette require the suitors to humiliate themselves on a regular basis, chugging cow intestine and water scorpion smoothies, performing musical numbers, and, of course, stripping naked in her name. The ritualized vulnerability continues in the constant bids for the men to disclose past traumas, whether at a candlelight dinner with the Bachelorette or into a microphone in front of a live audience. A state of self-abnegating worship is considered a moral baseline, any variation from which is swiftly and severely punished; a contestant from a previous season who had insulted Bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe for being “shallow” literally begs forgiveness on his knees during the Men Tell All special. The show uncritically endorses the practice of throwing oneself upon the altar of the Bachelorette as the truest form of love.
After hearing of the strip dodgeball date, contestant Yosef Aborady declares he has something he wants to get off his chest. “I’m not gonna back down from anyone, including the Bachelorette,” he declares in a talking head before pulling Clare aside. The date concept was one of several red flags for him, he tells her, deeming it “classless” and “immature.” As Yosef lectures Clare with all the self-importance and condescension of a preacher at the pulpit, the pretense of civility eventually becomes unsalvageable. “You’re not setting the right example for my daughter,” he chides. “I’m ashamed to be associated with you.” After several failed attempts to interject, Clare finally cuts him off. “I would never want my children having a father like you.” “Believe it, you’re not fit to be a mother of my child,” Yosef retorts. As he retreats, he hurls insults in his wake. “I expected way more from the OLDEST BACHELORETTE in history!” he taunts, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Remember, you’re almost 40! Hey, she’s all yours, boys.”
Yosef joins the ranks of the many Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants who for one reason or another end up getting the villain edit. 2011 Bachelorette contestant Bentley Williams makes it clear in his interviews that he doesn’t care about the lead, nor does he find her attractive, but he continues to string her along while regularly disparaging her to the camera. “I’m gonna go make Ashley cry. I hope my hair looks ok,” he says in a particularly damning talking head. More common—almost ubiquitous in present day seasons—are the men who go on the show hoping the publicity will give their career a boost, often leaving behind girlfriends on standby back home. The trend that emerges is striking: whereas female villains are condemned for their desperation, their competitiveness, their too-aggressive pursuit of the Bachelor, men on the show are more likely to turn traitor. Aside from the typical post-breakup spite, they open up another possibility: that all the hand-kissing and flattery will suddenly mutate into disdain. Or, even more disturbingly, that it will reveal itself as empty from the beginning.
After Yosef storms out, Dale intercepts a crying Clare. She receives his bland words of support with such anxious gratitude it’s painful to watch. “Literally all I’ve ever wanted is a man like Dale who’ll come over and protect me and make sure I’m ok,” Clare says tearfully in a talking head. She seems almost incredulous that one of the men came to comfort her, though that seems like the baseline of what you’d expect from someone kissing your hand and professing an intent to marry you. “Why are you so perfect?” she gushes.
In 1996, psychology researchers Peter Glick and Susan Fiske published a paper on a concept they called ambivalent sexism theory. They observed that the way the genders relate to each other is paradoxical. On the one hand, as the dominant group, men historically (and presently) hold more power and status than women, and they justify their continued privilege by viewing themselves as superior. But heterosexual men also depend on women for love, sex, and domestic labor. This intimate interdependence creates a tension—men want to maintain their position of power and keep women in their place, but they need to have positive intimate relationships with women. Therefore, sexist ideology must function to maintain the power of men while allowing for, even encouraging, heterosexual intimacy.
Ambivalent sexism theory suggests that two types of sexism complement each other to achieve this goal: hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism refers to ideas that are easily identifiable as anti-feminist—anything from “women are stupid and crazy” to the more subtle “women are sexually manipulative, conniving, whiny, etc.” Benevolent sexism is much more socially acceptable and harder to condemn. It represents women as beautiful, fragile flowers who deserve protection and adoration from men. Think of your classic chivalry—women are purer and more moral than men, therefore they need to be cherished, make sure you tell them they’re beautiful every day. (On Michelle’s season, which is airing right now, one of the group dates has the men act like schoolchildren, riffing off the Bachelorette’s profession as a teacher. “How many times is it acceptable to call me beautiful in a day?” she asks the class. They all answer “infinity.”) The researchers found that this paternalistic praise doesn’t conflict with overtly sexist hostility – they go hand in hand. Benevolent sexists, more often than not, are also hostile sexists. “Hostile sexism provides the threat and [benevolent sexism] the solution. Ironically, fearing men’s hostility can drive women straight into men’s arms seeking protection… from other men.” (When Chris Harrison comes to console Clare, he reassures her: “that’s the great thing about this—you’re going to find a guy that’ll protect you and never let somebody speak to you like that.”) A hit Motown song in the 1970’s includes the lyric, “I would kiss the ground she walks on, cause it’s my word, my word she’ll obey.” It’s so absurd and disturbing, this farce of respect for the purpose of subjugation. Like kneeling in worship of a woman but kneeling on her neck.
In the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, all you can see for a while is the outside of the bus.
Billy Bush: Sheesh, your girl’s hot as shit. In the purple.
Trump: Whoa! Whoa!
Bush: Yes! The Donald has scored. Whoa, my man!
Trump: Yeah, that’s her. With the gold. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
Bush: Whatever you want.
Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.
Bush: Uh, yeah, those legs, all I can see is the legs.
Trump: Oh, it looks good.
But the part I find most disturbing is when they get off the bus. The actress the men had spotted welcomes them both politely. She has no idea they’ve been gawking over her, objectifying her, discussing the prospect of sexually assaulting her. “Hello Mr. Trump,” she says, “pleasure to meet you.”
On each season premiere of The Bachelorette, the men arrive in separate limos. Sometimes they dress up in a costume or do some gimmick trying to get laughs, but most of them just walk out and say something like “you look absolutely beautiful.” The Bachelorette is always tickled. But I’m always wondering what they’re saying before they get out of the limo.
In an “unprecedented” twist, Clare is smitten with Dale by episode four and doesn’t want to continue with the remaining men. She’s hyperventilating with the anxiety of whether Dale will get down on one knee (of course the woman isn’t allowed to propose), and her relief when he finally does pop the question is palpable. They jet off on a blissful honeymoon. (Clare and Dale broke up for the second time this September.) Not to worry, Chris Harrison tells the remaining men, who are feeling a little cheated at this point. “Gentlemen, your new Bachelorette is on her way here right now. That’s right, you guys have a brand-new Bachelorette.” (Note the language of possession and the direction it goes.) The woman that walks in is Tayshia Adams, a bubbly phlebotomist from California. The men are instantly smitten. One of them exclaims: “I like her way more than Clare already!”
Clare was made out to be a bit of a desperate cougar on The Bachelorette. It’s easy to ridicule her earnest sentimentality, the ways she gushes over men doing the bare minimum. I myself found her desperation cringeworthy and alienating. But what was her sin, really? In my weaker moments, I can confess to the same vulnerability: wanting to hear kind things from men; wanting to believe them.